When the Los Angeles Clippers made the decision to go after Kawhi Leonard in the 2019 offseason, several accusations were made about possible tampering with the free agent once his decision to sign with the team was announced.
While claims were made that Clippers’ advisor Jerry West had made an inappropriate agreement to bring over Leonard, the NBA never found any evidence of wrongdoing. In a press conference before the 2020 season started, Leonard addressed the claims made and completely shut them down.
“Not at all. That has nothing to do with me coming here, I’m from LA,” Leonard said. “I grew up here my whole life. Out here, people try to find any way to get some money. It probably won’t be the last. I know a lot of people out here.”
At the time, the race to sign the two-time world champion came down to the team he had just completed a magical postseason run with across the northern border or a change of scenery to the bright lights of Hollywood.
For Leonard, the decision to return to Los Angeles was a simple one. Considering he attended King High School in Riverside followed by a collegiate career in San Diego, the Los Angeles native was all too familiar with the SoCal sun.
While Lebron James and the Los Angeles Lakers attempted their best pitch in acquiring the two-time defensive player of the year, Leonard made the decision to take on his own team and create a legacy in white and blue instead of purple and gold.
Now in his second year of the three-year max contract that he signed back in July 2019, Leonard may quite possibly be having the best season of his entire career at the age of 29.
The San Diego State alum is known for being coy and short when it comes to expressing his thoughts with the media, but his game on the court speaks volumes and it is time teams take notice.
Currently sitting sixth in the MVP voting race, the continued lack of respect towards the quiet All-Star is something that teammate Paul George has taken taking notice of. The Clippers traded for George a day after signing Leonard, acquiring him from the Oklahoma City Thunder and creating one of the most dynamic one-two punches in the league.
“I mean, I think it’s because he’s not flashy to people but he’s effective,” George said. “When you talk about a guy who goes on the floor and is one hundred percent committed to winning and winning at all costs, you have to take that into account when considering the MVP.”
The Clippers (24-13) are the third-best team in the Western Conference. They and the Lakers (23-11) remain four games back of the red hot Utah Jazz (27-7). George feels the team’s loaded roster should not be a factor when considering The Claw for MVP.
“MVP is about the most valuable player, this team wouldn’t be where we’re at without Kawhi on the floor,” George said. “I don’t know if this roster is the reason why he’s not getting the votes or the recognition. There are a lot of guys ahead of him that have pretty good rosters as well.”
Entering his 10th year in the league, Leonard is posting near career-high numbers across the board. Known for his lockdown defense and enormous hands, the elite defender has turned himself into a top ten scorer over the past three seasons. Averaging slightly under 27 points a game in his time with the Clippers, Leonard has proven that he is not simply a one-trick pony.
Now after being named to his fifth all-star game appearance, Leonard continues to keep his head down and pile up monster numbers game after game. Through the first 36 games of the 2020-2021 season, Leonard has posted 26.9 points per game, 6.2 rebounds a game, alongside 5.0 assists.
A major improvement this season has been the forward’s shot selection, with his field goal percentage hovering over 51 percent for the season. The ability to also knock down the long ball has been an effective addition to the star’s game, as his near 40 percent clip would only be the second time in his career to finish a season above that mark from beyond the arc.
Though missing a handful of games early in the season due to multiple injuries, the two-time NBA Finals MVP is focused on getting the team on the same page night in and night out.
“We’re getting better in some of those areas, you know adjusting but we still have a ways to go,” Leonard said. “Sometimes it takes us a while to find what’s going on, or with what’s really working well with this or that.”
For Leonard, individual awards are meaningless when the team is not succeeding as a whole. With the all-star break approaching, working on communication will be a main focus for the star.
“As a team, we’re not there yet, we look to the sidelines too much for plays,” Leonard said.
As the team figures out how to close out games together in the fourth quarter, Leonard knows it will be up to him to push the team in the direction it needs to go. This is a sentiment that head coach Tyronn Lue continues to preach to his team even after blowout victories.
“We just have to challenge these guys, I think you know we have great players on this team,” Lue said. “We just have to continue to challenge these guys to get better, not being happy where we’re at. We have a long way to go, we still have a lot of room for improvement and we still want to continue getting better.”
If coach Lue believes there is room for improvement in not only his team’s game but Leonard’s as well, then the MVP votes should start piling up and quite possibly be the next award added to the superstars’ shelf.
The featured image is of Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard in pregame warm-ups before his team hit the floor against the Phoenix Suns. Photo credit: Mark Hammond/News4usonline